Thursday, April 26, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Fascinated by the Idea of What it Means to be "Other"

Foreign No More Ping Chong Portrays the Immigrant Experience With Real People

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Vamos a empezar.

Bay dia se bat dau.


Sh ka tioban.

Let's get started. Please sit down.

The stage is black.

The voices are in color.

They speak, and you think you know who they are. Ninety minutes later, you realize that what you thought you knew was only a fraction of the truth, the for-colored-people-only truth. The voices don't fit in a box.

The people onstage are not actors. They are reading from scripts, but the scripts are not really scripts. The words are their own stories told with stage directions--their own lives, now on paper.


They are presenting their lives at Washington's GALA Hispanic Theatre in a revolutionary stage documentary called "Undesirable Elements" by New York playwright and director Ping Chong. Chong has dedicated himself to bringing real life to art. He travels the world, interviewing people and turning their lives into a stage production that explains what it feels like to be Other.

His only qualification in selecting his cast is that they be people who have moved from one culture to another, because it is in that transformation that lessons are learned. Cultural stereotypes are splattered. Differences become blended. The single, taut thread of humanity becomes tighter.

"We all have common human experiences," Chong says. "We all have to deal with life, death, war. Those common threads are fundamental facts of human existence: suffering and happiness."

Chong says he got the idea while teaching a theater course in the Netherlands in 1991. His students would have lunch together. "I thought: We are all from different places in the world. We are all doing something positive and creative, and we are not shooting each other. Can I do a show about people, with all their differences, sitting in the same room talking about joy?"

He was worried that "we were growing more insular from each other, a result of the Reagan era, when it became okay to be selfish, okay to be intolerant. People in America should have the right to have different opinions. When one group tries to clamp down on another group, that is fascism. Americans have forgotten what democracy is."

He debuted "Undesirable Elements" in 1992 in New York. For eight years, the idea has toured--to Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Rotterdam and Tokyo, where in 1995 he received a Yumiuri Theatrical Award naming it one of the year's five best plays produced in Japan.

Two months ago, Chong came to Washington. He screened about 30 people and emerged with a cast of five. Chong and co-writer/director Michael Rohd figured out how their stories could be told dramatically. The piece was written as a series of journal entries read to an audience. The entries are woven together in a chronology.

"The stories are so rich, so fascinating, they beat what playwrights try to write," Rohd said. "When real life is woven into theater, you have the best of both worlds. You have truth and you have real life."


The five people performing their own lives on a black stage covered with white gravel take their cue offstage. They march in silence, forcefully, with direction, swirling around their half-moon pit. No expression. They step into the pit. The stones crunch under their feet. They take their seats.

They introduce themselves.

There is Marlene Calista Cooper, born in Monrovia, Liberia, two months premature.

Alida Yath, born in Alta Coban Verapaz, Guatemala. It was the dry season.

Arnoldo Ramos, born in San Jose, Costa Rica, in a taxi near a stop sign in front of a cathedral.

Dang Ngoc Hoa, known in this city as Sandy Dang, born in Hanoi with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Eugenio Longoria, born in Brownsville, Tex., growing up skipping the border between Mexico and Texas, living in two worlds.


The people performing their own lives sit back in the hard black folding chairs on the stage that is black covered in white gravel. The scene behind them is a shimmery white moon, painted imperfectly on a black curtain. The people performing their own lives don't leave the stage again until you know them.

And you will know them. You will dig deep beneath the stereotypes of their cultures. You will live their births, their childhoods, the coup d'etat, the rapes, the poverty, the shoes so tattered that the nails patching them together make your toes bleed because you have to walk a mile from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. You will get slapped with the racism from the majority people and the racism from your own people because your skin is too light or too black, your eyes are too green, you are Chinese in Vietnam, you are white and Mexican. You will learn that to be poor is to be resourceful.

You will come to America and get fired from a bartending job at the elegant restaurant on the fifth floor of Garfinckel's because a newspaper columnist asks you for chilled white wine and you don't know what chilled white wine is so your co-worker puts ice cubes in the white wine and serves it to him. The columnist writes about it jokingly the next day. He does not know that his words will steal your paycheck.

Their stories swell. And as they speak, you listen and hear their histories from their perspectives. You heard something about the coup in Liberia. Wasn't that sometime in the 1970s? You heard about it. But it seemed so very far away. You don't know the story until Marlene, the Liberian American, tells you, from the inside out.

"One hundred thirty-three years of rule by a tiny elite of about 300 extended families descended primarily from freed slaves and free blacks comes to an end."

There is dancing in the streets. At noon soldiers enter her yard looking for her father. They fire guns over her head. They take her mother downstairs. Her mother fights. They tell her mother if she doesn't stop fighting, they will rape her daughters. The mother stops fighting. They rape the mother. Marlene is 9 years old.

Mexican nicknames: El Chivo, meaning the goat. El Canalero, meaning river man. El Verde, meaning the man with green eyes. El Guero, meaning a white-looking Mexican.

Vietnamese names: Tai, meaning greatness. Tuan, handsome. Minh, bright. My, beautiful.

Costa Rican nicknames: Indio, Negro, Pipo, Tico, Pepita. El Macho, the slang name for North Americans in Costa Rica: On one level, it means someone who is blond. On another, it means someone who comes and dominates you.

Liberian slang: Sweet Motha, refers to platform shoes or shoes no longer in style. Holy holy, a public bus. Where's my Christmas, meaning: Don't you have any money for me today? Play is play, and joke is joke, but sticking your finger in a blind man's eye is damned provoking. No translation necessary.


Chong is sitting in the hollow theater, directing the lives of the people who are reading their lives onstage. "Read it louder. Slow down. You told that story with more emotion. Now you are just reading it."

They are not professional actors. But there is power in their words because the words belong to them, these immigrants we think we know but we don't know.

You see a woman, a Chinese-Vietnamese community leader in Washington. She is sharp. She is an advocate. But did you know that when she was a child, her family built a bomb shelter under their home in Hanoi? Did you know that for 11 consecutive days, the United States rained bombs on her neighborhood? Did you know a bomb dropped 10 blocks from her house, wiping out the largest hospital in Hanoi?

"If the bombs had been just a little closer, I would not be here now."

She is reading the line. It is not made-up play drama. It is real.

What do you think of when you hear the words Costa Rica? Eco-tourism!

Arnoldo thinks of a haven, his parents, forgiveness and the essence of his being.

What do you think of when you hear the word Guatemala? The answers: poor, submissive, drunk, meek, illiterate.

Alida thinks of her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, a beautiful place, a culture she wants to save but is disappearing. She thinks of the scent of orange blossoms.

What do you think when you hear the word Vietnam?

People think War.

Sandy thinks, "My childhood . . . a guava tree, playing house under the shade of bamboo, of eating a breakfast of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves."

What do you think when you hear the word Mexico?

People think cheap labor, Taco Bell, illegal immigrants, cheap vacations and exploited people.

Eugenio thinks of his flag, the scent of taquitos, papayas, churros, the smell of hard work. He hears his mother's voice singing his brothers to sleep.

What do you think of when you hear the word Liberia?

People wonder: Is that Russia? Isn't Gadhafi there? They think of bare-breasted women.

Marlene thinks of heat, red earth, salt air, mangoes, country chop, palm butter and rice, foo-foo, the song of the pepper bird.

She thinks of the silence of the dead.